Appearing in the
Faithful, but writing their own agenda
Teenagers seek church's stability, but rules and prejudice lose them
By ARTHUR JONES
Tall and short, robust and skinny, Asian, African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian and beautiful blend of several races, cultures and ethnicities, on stage they leaned against the back wall, laughed, giggled and made bold statements. They could be shy, yet gave evidence of take-charge capability; sometimes funny, their responses showed they could inspire. In every way they summed up what the American Catholic church needs by way of leadership, and said, “Here we are.”
Every one a teenager.
Their 100 or so peers urged them on, cheered, whooped and said yes. This impromptu “leadership” group was pulled together by Ann Marie Eckert, the provocateur who, in her “Helping to Lead the Church in the 21st Century” workshop, lobbed the kids questions like, What are the essential qualities in a leader?
They answered -- Rosemary Donnelly and Charles Chudabala, Alberto Pina and Mary Campbell and the rest -- with words and phrases like, “enabling,” “organized,” “welcoming,” “able to listen,” “to inspire,” “considerate,” “be role models,” “to delegate,” “to step back.”
Eckert, the Milwaukee archdiocese’s associate director of youth and young adult ministry, said, “One thing about being a leader, your antennae should be up to know who’s doing things well. We should be able to provide people with a way to celebrate when they do something special.”
Articulate and pleased to be there, these teens from Catholic schools and parishes exuded confidence -- a pride in being Catholic. And they listened to Eckert because they were drawn into participating, and because they were excited and fresh -- this was their first workshop at the daylong Los Angeles Archdiocesan Youth Day that preceded the Religious Education Congress.
During breaks, teens from the dozen workshops swarmed outside. From Sacred Heart of Jesus High School in Los Angeles were 10th graders Vickie Munoz, Jennifer Muro, Jessica Fleytas, Veronica Jauregni, Mary Pinon and Denise Obian. They’d been to Pam Stenzel’s workshop on “Sex Has a Price Tag.” They’d found it “interesting,” “supportive,” and “it made you think -- some of the things you can relate to.”
What adults can’t relate to, the girls agreed, was their music. Mary likes rapper Jay Z; Jessica likes Blink 182; and Vickie likes The Clash (a group of men in their mid to late 40s who cut their first record in 1977). Vickie said adults “really criticize” the teen music because of the violence and language. The high schoolers said adults need to listen to the lyrics. They talk “to where we’re at, what we feel,” said Mary.
The girls talked comfortably about their prayer life, more hesitantly about the Eucharist for divorced Catholics (they’re in favor if the injured party is able to forgive), and were imaginative about what married priests might bring to the church.
“They’d have more to talk about and they’d understand that people don’t live perfect lives,” said one.
“They’d know the problems if they had families, and the community would be stronger, more united,” said another.
The young men had their turn. Parishioners and ninth graders at Holy Trinity in Atwater, Calif., Norman Angeles, Joseph Lopez, Josef Aranda and Jack Dizon had been to Bob McCarty’s workshop, “Survival Skills for Catholic Teens.” One skill, said Norman, “is you’re supposed to speak the truth about God.” The quartet, who said they were attending the Youth Day because they wanted to -- they didn’t have to attend -- felt they’d gotten something useful from it. All of them are active in their parish. Some serve as eucharistic ministers and as bearers of the gifts at Mass.
Their afternoon session was Bobby Fisher’s liturgical music-filled “Liturgy Come to Life.” They’d enjoyed that because it was lively. Norman said, “Everybody was into it, everybody was like clapping, everybody was talking about God and stuff.”
Joseph added, “Everyone got in with the crowd.” The usual church music, they said, makes young people not want to go to church.
They said they’d attend another congress, that they had fun and learned a lot. But for many teens in attendance -- at workshops and even at the music rallies, there did seem to be a mood swing between morning and afternoon.
At Eckert’s afternoon session, the new group -- by contrast with the morning -- had low energy, was listless, even sullen. At the music-filled rallies, though many teens throw themselves into the event, a high percentage seemed disinterested, leaning against rear walls, eyes closed or stretched out, not participating.
Why? Because they were teenagers. Some probably felt they’d done enough “work” in a day that was supposed to be fun as well as intense.
“You’ve got to let them be teenagers,” said Fr. Tony Ricard, the New Orleans priest whose morning liturgy and altar call saw some 90 high schoolers crowd around the convention ballroom altar to attest they were at least “considering perhaps” becoming a priest, sister or religious brother. “They’ll listen for just so long,” said Ricard.
“Sometimes we in the church expect them to somehow be adults -- in all the things that work for adults, as well as in their faith expression,” he said after a photo op with dozens of teens who took turns in small groups having their picture taken with him.
He was realistic enough, too, to suggest that of the 90-plus teens who’d responded to the altar call, “maybe 10” would still be interested in a vowed or professed vocation “five years from now.”
“We forget,” Ricard said, “they’re teenagers in the middle of that great hormonal fight, great enthusiasms, in the middle of all the anxieties they have about school, friends, family and the pressure of grades. When I go out and give talks, I try to let them be teens. I’ll incorporate music, dancing, a few jokes. The joy I’ve found is that once they realize I’ve a little idea of where they’re at and what they’re dealing with, they’ll listen to what I have to say.”
During her workshop, Eckert touched on the same thing when she said, “Leaders have to have an encouraging heart.” She did elicit from the afternoon group the elements of poor leadership, that bad leaders “don’t listen,” “have a lack of vision,” “don’t worry about anyone but themselves,” “don’t help,” “lack courage” and “blow you out of the water because it’s all about me.”
Good leaders, she said, “enter into the lives of people and help them where they are.” She also mentioned being attentive listeners, but with the group he had, that was obviously uphill work.
Educating the young in religion is a vocation, a pitch -- and a business. The congress’ enormous exhibitors’ hall, packed with almost 800 stalls and booths selling everything from stained glass to religious bric-a-brac, concentrated primarily on books and tapes aimed at young Christians or their catechists.
A random sampling included Zondervan publishing’s Peter’s First Easter (by Walter Wangerin, for ages 4-8) and For the Graduate: God’s Guidance for the Road Ahead (a compilation of Christian authors). Loyola Press had a Christ Our Life series (for K-8) and Raising Faith-Filled Kids by Tom McGrath. Benzinger, with a selection of resource books in Spanish, also had The Catechist’s Companion, by Cullen Schippe. There was ACTA’s Starting Out: Reflections for Young People, by Patrick T. Reardon -- small enough to drop in the pocket. Gardens were in at Thomas More, which had Christina Keffler and Rebecca Donnelli’s Garden of Virtues (illustrated by Suzanne Etman) and Tend Your Own Garden: How to Raise Great Kids, by Timothy O’Connell.
Finally, typical of what was available higher up the young-adult pecking order was Augsburg’s, What Next? Connecting Your Ministry with the Generation Formerly Known as X, written by a “Project Team.”
Two people who’ve touched the GenX and now Millennial generations in everyday work staffed the booth for the Los Angeles archdiocese’s campus ministry program. Archdiocesan campus ministry director Joan Lester and Cindy Yoshitomi, campus minister at the University of California at Los Angeles, gave their views.
“I like these younger guys better than in the ’80s,” said Yoshitomi. “The ’80s were all about money.”
“This generation is very faithful,” said Lester. “They take the church seriously, but they’re writing their own agenda.”
Yoshitomi said, “The church isn’t connecting with them as well as it thinks.”
Lester said, “They don’t buy into the institution. They like the pope.”
Yoshitomi added, “They’ve only lived with this one pope. He’s stability. He’s always been there. He’s an icon in the same way grandparents are. And in their life there’s not a whole lot of stability -- they were born in the ’80s.”
Young Catholics are “going to walk away if they don’t get what they need,” Lester said. “They want the stability of the church. They’re looking for that in their lives. They know it’s always going to be there, provide for them and nourish them. But if you come down with rules and obligations -- or prejudices against other religions -- you’re not going to hold them.”
“Don’t forget,” Yoshitomi said, “these kids are being raised by our generation. We’re the ones who went through the Vatican II experience -- and stayed faithful. These kids are so active and so faithful. We get 800 students at a Sunday Mass, and they don’t have to come.”
Outside, by mid-afternoon, there were lots of girls sitting at the tables, and lots of boys eyeing them, with rallies going on inside at two locations. It seemed to me that what all 10,000 really needed after a workshop, liturgy and lunch, was somewhere to dance.
It was a successful youth day, but these were teens spending the day with the groups they came in with and would go home with. They needed more venues to interact, to draw strength from new Catholic acquaintances and potential friends.
Maybe forget the afternoon workshops. Turn those meeting rooms and arenas into mini- and maxi-dance halls. Give out the tickets and let them meet and mingle with other Catholic teens for a couple of hours.
Dancing would do it.